Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning

University of Wisconsin - Madison
Established: 2003

Profile submitted by Robert D. Mathieu

Vision and Goals

The CIRTL mission is to enhance excellence in undergraduate education through the development of a national faculty committed to implementing and advancing effective teaching practices for diverse learners as part of successful and varied professional careers.

Description of Programming

As an example of one CIRTL learning community:

University of Wisconsin–Madison. The Delta Program in Research, Teaching, and Learning, launched in 2003, has included 2,380 STEM graduate-through-faculty participants. The programmatic component of Delta includes graduate courses, small-group facilitated programs for graduates-through-faculty, mentor training in undergraduate research (created via the current grant), and TAR internships. The program design emphasizes semester-long intervals of engagement, building on research showing that such longer term engagement is more transformational.

Every facet of Delta is designed around research models familiar to STEM graduates-through-faculty. The courses are project-based, requiring students to define a learning problem; understand the student audience; explore the literature for prior knowledge; hypothesize, design, and implement a solution; and acquire and analyze data to measure learning outcomes. The Delta internships are research assistantships in teaching, in which a graduate student or postdoc partners with a faculty member to address a learning problem. The Delta activities are designed to provide each graduate and postdoctoral participant with a portfolio, letters of recommendation, and presentations/publications in teaching and learning analogous to those in their disciplinary research curriculum vitae. And finally, every course is team-taught by research-active STEM and social science faculty and staff. These pairings provide powerful combinations of experience, theoretical foundation, and role modeling for the STEM future faculty.

40% of the future faculty engage in 15 or more hours of Delta programs. The participants comprise 21% physical and mathematical sciences, 45% biological sciences, 18% engineering sciences, and 13% social, behavioral, and economic sciences. The gender distribution among graduate students is nearly equal. Operations of the Delta Program have been institutionalized since 2007.

Successes and Impacts

Since 2003 CIRTL has collected data to study the future faculty participating in CIRTL learning communities. Here we highlight the findings of two studies; all research and evaluation publications and reports can be found at

Learning Outcomes: Three-hundred-twelve high-engagement (>15 contact hours) participants in 39 offerings of the Delta Program answered two questions upon completion of a program:

A. What major concepts are you taking away from this Delta course, program, or activity that will affect your practice as an educator? If possible, please give two to three specific examples.

B. Suppose that you are preparing to teach some scientific concept from your discipline (e.g., the nitrogen cycle, amplitude, redox reactions). Describe the steps that you will take, based on what you've learned in this course, program, or activity.

Figure 1 in Pfund et al. (2012, Change Magazine, 44(6):64-72) shows the major concepts and approaches to teaching presented by respondents. Just over 90% expressed TAR ideas; for example 74% discussed assessment/evaluation and half explicitly called out defining learning outcomes. 57% integrated the presence of diverse learners into their thinking about teaching, including concepts such as inclusive teaching and diverse instruction. Nearly half included learning community ideas in their responses, and especially group work. Additional learning outcomes were expressed but did not fit neatly within one of the CIRTL core ideas. 72% noted the importance of understanding learners and learning, with particular empha-sis on cognition, learning and development, and knowing students' backgrounds and perspectives.

Current education research (Ambrose et al., 2010; Svinicki & McKeachie 2010; Weimer 2002) supports the argument that the national goal of advancing STEM undergraduate learning will be advanced by STEM faculty who characterize and engage in their teaching similarly to the future faculty in this study. The CIRTL hypothesis has been that future faculty will embrace these research-based high-impact approaches to teaching by doing teaching-as-research, having learning community experiences, and experiencing learning-through-diversity—and furthermore, that their self-discovery will lead to deeper understanding and engagement with these ideas. These data support this hypothesis, although attribution of outcomes is always difficult.

Best Practices in Early Faculty Careers: In 2005 CIRTL initiated a longitudinal study of 83 future faculty (Benbow, Byrd & Connolly 2011). Of the 67 still responding in 2011, 80% remain in higher education, 49% are currently associated with undergraduate education, and 30% are in tenure-track faculty positions. Of the last, half are in predominantly undergraduate institutions.

Respondents' current perceptions of learning gains from their CIRTL experiences fit into four broad thematic categories: diversity of perspectives (e.g., the most commonly reported cognitive gains related to diversity in the classroom); importance of engaging students in active learning; connections between teaching and scientific research (e.g., that the teaching process can be enhanced by scientific methods); and design and organization to meet specific learning goals.

A majority of study respondents (76%) found ways to use the knowledge and skills they gained from teaching development in their subsequent undergraduate teaching. Respondents most frequently cited delivering instruction that increases student engagement (e.g., through active learning techniques, inquiry-based learning, or the creation of learning communities within the classroom). They also frequently cited what they had learned in assessment and course preparation and planning, especially backward design by starting with learning goals.

Respondents reported that their participation contributed significantly to their early-career success—namely, job satisfaction, peer approbation, and membership in learning communities. When asked what influenced their effectiveness in their current job, the respondents linked their effectiveness to how well they thought their students were performing in class and how well they felt they themselves were balancing work and personal responsibilities. When asked how they felt their colleagues, peers, students, or supervisors gauged their effectiveness, nearly 90% responded positively, based on formal and informal processes.

In 2011 nearly 1500 STEM future faculty from across STEM participated in the learning communities of the six universities in the prototype CIRTL Network. The current 23 universities propose to train 7000 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows each year, of whom 2200 potential future faculty will graduate annually. This number is comparable to 25% of the current national production rate of faculty six years out of graduate school.

a cross-Network learning community has been a strategically important experiment of CIRTL, based on the hypothesis that future faculty would be better prepared for careers as a result of learning with future faculty and from current faculty at a diverse set of universities.

Since 2008 participation in the cross-Network learning community has increased by an average of a factor three each year, with 383 participations in 2011. Currently participation is limited only by capacity, with waitlists each semester.

As of 2012, the cross-Network learning community regularly offers these online synchronous opportunities: four or five semester-long CIRTL courses (56 future faculty from all six institutions in 2011); the CIRTL Capstone TAR Seminar, forming a learning community of TAR interns across the Network (22); CIRTL Coffee Hours, a series for future faculty to connect informally in discussions of topics of mutual interest (206); and occasional CIRTLCasts, webinars by guest experts. Capstone experiences for TAR interns include CIRTL Exchanges, recently begun, which send future faculty to Network campuses to present both disciplinary research and TAR seminars (5 exchanges, 94 seminar attendees). These exchanges are valuable both for the TAR intern and for promoting CIRTL on the host campus, as the future faculty themselves are invariably the best ambassadors of CIRTL.

When reflecting on the impact of a cross-Network learning community, participants most often cited the diversity of ideas and experiences among classmates and instructors. Participants indicated that the courses exposed them to a diversity of ideas with which they were unfamiliar, both through the content of the courses and the diverse institutional contexts of participants. Participants indicated that the diversity of institutional representation enhanced the feedback on their course or TAR projects due to different perspectives on teaching, and broadened their understanding about how other institutions organized and managed their courses.

Elements Contributing to Success

The most important element in the success of CIRTL has been the foundational conceptual ideas:

  • Teaching-as-research (TAR) is the deliberate, systematic, and reflective use of research methods by STEM instructors to develop and implement teaching practices that advance the learning experiences and outcomes of all students.
  • Learning communities (LC) bring together groups of people for shared learning, discovery, and generation of knowledge. To achieve common learning goals, a learning community nurtures functional relationships among its members.
  • Learning-through-diversity (LtD) capitalizes on the rich array of experiences, backgrounds, and skills among STEM undergraduates and graduates-through-faculty to enhance the learning of all. It recognizes that excellence and diversity are necessarily intertwined.

These ideas operate powerfully at multiple levels. First, they lie at the heart of the learning objectives of CIRTL professional development activities. Each activity seeks to enable graduates-through-faculty—throughout their careers—to create learning communities of their students, to practice teaching-as-research, and enhance the learning of all students. Second, the graduates-through-faculty themselves form campus learning communities that enable members to investigate the effects of teaching practice and capitalize on their diverse perspectives. Third, the cross-Network learning community enables all Network future faculty to learn from the diversity of graduates-through-faculty, undergraduates, university cultures, etc. of the Network. Finally, the leaders and implementers of the campus learning communities are themselves a Network learning community sharing resources, experiences, and ideas with each other and the nation.